(Casper Star Tribune, July 16) – For Chet Skilbred, standing outside the small dark office of the former Glenrock Coal Company, Tuesday’s visit from Gov. Matt Mead signaled the end of decades of work.
As more than 100 wind turbines churned against a powder-blue sky, Skilbred and his wife, Carolee, took pride in a job well done, a land returned to its former glory.
Skilbred began reclamation work at the Dave Johnston Coal Mine when it was still pulling coal out of the windswept ground in 1980. When the coal was too deep to be worth the effort, the mine closed. The workers left, and the 11-mile stretch of bruised ground began the long process of reclamation, overseen largely by the Skilbreds.
Officials from the Department of Environmental Quality, the governor’s office and Rocky Mountain Power, which owns the land, were on hand Tuesday to celebrate the site’s release from bond. After a mine’s closure, there is a series of required clean-up phases to bring the land back to health, before the state of Wyoming and the Office of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement cede jurisdiction back to the owner.
It’s a rare event in Wyoming, where most former coal land is in the first or second phase of cleanup. But the story of the Dave Johnston Mine is notable not only because the final 10-year monitoring phase has closed but because the former non-renewable energy site has become the site of three wind farms.
“There is no other place where we mined coal for energy for all these years and then we started producing energy on top of the ground. It’s a very unique site,” said Leslie Blythe, regional business manager for Rocky Mountain Power.
The three farms — Glenrock, Rolling Hills and Glenrock III — comprise 158 turbines and produce 237 megawatts of power, said Laine Anderson, director of wind operations.
Anderson was an oilfield engineer but turned to other industries after the last big oil bust in the 1980s. He and Skilbred built the wind farm for Rocky Mountain Power.
“The world’s changing,” he said. “You have to change with it.”
Like the Skilbreds, Anderson views the windy hills with a sense of accomplishment.
Mead praised the work done on the mine site and the ingenuity of the wind projects.
“The mine provided coal to produce low-cost energy to thousands of homes and businesses throughout the region for four decades,” he said. “At the end of its useful life, as we do in Wyoming, the land was restored to a better state. This is a model of mining, reclamation, repurposing land and our regulatory systems.”
In the mine’s latter years about 4 million tons of coal were mined each year. In 1997, two years before it closed, the coal company paid $7.9 million in royalties to state and local governments and employed 160 people.
“Reclamation is always on the back burner when you’re mining,” Skilbred remembered. “When it quit, the mining in 1998, then [reclamation] takes on a whole new meaning, because then reclamation is the job out here.”
His wife operated heavy equipment in the mining days. Now she likes to watch the pronghorn sitting in the shade of the turbines on a hot day and drinking from the truck-tire ponds she and her husband installed.
“To see this job finally finished is awesome,” she said. “To see that it looks as good as it does is even better.”